Kurt Vile was in Philadelphia, posing for a photo shoot, but his mind was miles away: 10,300 miles, to be exact, the distance from his hometown to Melbourne, Australia, where one of his favourite songwriters, Courtney Barnett, lives. "I started spacing out and writing a song for Courtney," Vile recalls. "I had a fantasy that she would sing it with me."
The song he began writing that day in 2015, "Over Everything" – a sneakily deep riff on life as a creative loner – provided the spark for Vile and Barnett's excellent new album, Lotta Sea Lice, due out in October. The two were only casual acquaintances, but they had a lot in common: Both are among indie rock's finest storytellers, with a shared sense of deadpan humor running through Vile's existential blues jams and Barnett's concise tales of everyday weirdness. And Barnett, who says she was "struggling" with writing a follow-up to her successful debut LP, loved the idea of a fun side project. A few months later, she invited him to a Melbourne studio to work on "Over Everything" and another song she'd dreamed up for him in return.
"It's a scary process, taking a half-written song to someone," Barnett says. "I didn't want him to be like, 'God, this sucks. What have I gotten myself into?'" But they hit it off immediately. "The vibes were strong," says Vile. "We discovered we could finish things on the quick, like an outlaw country singer, or Neil Young." Adds Barnett, "We were mucking around, eating pizza, and we had all these songs all of a sudden."
The pair continued working throughout 2016. Vile was on vacation with his family in Hawaii when he penned "Continental Breakfast," an ambling ballad about his and Barnett's blossoming long-distance friendship. They reconvened in Melbourne to finish the album with session players.
They found room on the track list for choice covers – there's a lovely duet on Belly's 1993 song "Untogether," and a blazing version of "Fear Is Like a Forest," originally recorded by Barnett's partner, Jen Cloher. They also recorded reinterpretations of each other's songs (Barnett's rueful take on Vile's "Peeping Tomboy" is a standout). The collaboration generated more material than could fit on the album: They hope to release a cover of Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" that Vile calls "ridiculous and awesome."
Vile and Barnett have since returned to working on their respective upcoming solo albums, neither of which has a release date. In the meantime, they're getting ready to tour the U.S. together this fall with an all-star band (including Sleater-Kinney's Janet Weiss on drums for several dates). "We're just gonna get onstage and see what happens," Barnett jokes. Vile chuckles and adds, "It'll be sick."